Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shot in the Brain

Occasionally, I have been known to watch the HBO series, Band of Brothers. In the final episode, there is a scene where one of the characters, Sergeant Charles E. Grant, gets shot in the head. The scene is based on real life events. In July 1945, during the U.S. occupation of Germany, Grant took a bullet to the brain (shot by a drunken GI from the same regiment). Amazingly, the men in his company found a brain surgeon in Saalfelden who performed an operation that saved Grant’s life. Grant lived on for thirty-nine more years, mostly recovered, excepting a minor speech problem and a paralyzed arm. It interests me that even though Grant took a bullet to the brain, his comrades held out hope that he might survive such a grievous wound.

Did Civil War soldiers hold onto similar hope when they dealt with brain injuries? I have an example that offers us an answer.

On June 4, 1864, while the Army of the Potomac sat deadlocked at Cold Harbor, a Union officer elected to deal with a troublesome Confederate sharpshooter. This was Lieutenant Aaron K. Blake, Company A, 13th New Hampshire, whose company occupied the forward rifle pits. Blake grabbed a rifle and darted forward, hoping to spy his adversary. Sure enough, after some careful observation, Blake caught sight of a Confederate rifleman and took a shot. He brought down his target, but lingered too long in observing his handiwork. A rifle crack followed, and a bullet whizzed in. Another Confederate sharpshooter—who had gone unseen by Blake—had taken a shot at him. The projectile struck Blake in the head, breaking open the top part of his skull. The bullet came to rest inside his brain, and he slumped over, unconscious.

Several soldiers from Company A rushed to Blake’s side and dragged him out of harm’s way. They tried to revive him, but it was no use. Blake just sat there, breathing, sometimes reacting to noise, but never coming out of his coma. Private William B. Luey, a soldier attached to the 13th New Hampshire, recounted the awful incident in his diary:

Aaron K. Blake, of [Company] A, is shot through the upper part of his head to-day, a rebel bullet entering and exposing the brain. He is laid near the Pine at first, close to the north side of it, and breathes almost all day. He is utterly unconscious, making no sign when spoken to or touched—every effort being made to revive him—and can suffer no possible pain; yet he is strangely nervous, breathing more quickly when a shell strikes the tree, or near him, or the noise of the firing increases. Later in the day he is moved to the covert way, a few feet to the south of the Pine, where about 5 p.m. he quietly ceases to breathe; and dies without showing any sign of consciousness or of suffering from the time when he was struck.

When Lieutenant Blake suffered his death wound, the men of Company A summoned his cousin, Private George P. Blake of Company F. Private Blake had the unenviable task of writing to his aunt and uncle (Lieutenant Blake’s parents) and giving them the particulars of their son’s death:

June 19, 1864

Dear Uncle & Aunt

I wrote to father the sad news of Aarons death, the particulars of which I could not at the time enumerate. His company and regiment were in the advance holding a line of rifle pits in close proximity to the enemy. Watching carefully the doings of the enemy, he advanced bravely to the line and having seen that there was a sharpshooter whose unerring eye had picked off many of our boys, brought his rifle to bear on him and fired. After firing he remain[ed] to[o] long to watch the effect and another sharpshooter fire[d] his rifle, the fatal bullet of which caused the death of one of our countrys bravest sons, who through all the privations of a soldiers life was never heard to grumble and whose sense of duty was highly commendable.

He was much liked in his company both as an officer and as a companion, always endeavoring to cheer the hearts of those who were weary of a soldier’s life and had forgotten their duty to their country. His fate has been like that of many others in winning for the 13th N. H. Regt. laurels which it will ever be proud of, and a name as unperishable as has ever been gained since this cruel war commenced. He was noted for cleanliness, never being seen in a filthy condition, even when under great adversities. His place in the ranks has been but very seldom vacant. In fact he was a perfect soldier, being admired by both officers and men. It hardly seems possible to me that he is dead, for whenever I visited the regiment, he was sure to call me, and whenever I had any news from home he took great delight in telling me of it.

His effect[s] were taking care of a part of which I have in my own possession and will send to you at the first opportunity. Lt. [Charles B.] Gafney has his watch and one or two other trinkets which he will send you. He was buried near Coal Harbor by the side of many of his regiment and a slab was erected to denote his final resting place.

The loss of him is I am well aware a very severe blow to the heart of his parents and the fact of his being so watchful to promote your ever[y] interest seems to hold his memory more dear. He never [k]new what hit him, being senseless from the first. George G. Ricker watched by him until he was dead and then marked his place of burial. George Ricker is reported killed. Your affliction is I am well aware more grievous than I can imagine and you have my heartfelt sympathies in enabling you to be up against this dire misfortune. But he is dead and his grave which is all that is left remains for future generations to look upon as altar upon which was slain one whose many bright hopes are blasted and who is I trust in that place of rest where wars and rumours of wars can never disturb his holy slumbers. My love to all and may the Almighty in his infinite goodness enable you to bear with Christian fortitude your affliction and assist you in this time of earthly woe.

Adiew and may God Bless You

Your Nephew,

Geo. P. Blake

Some Civil War soldiers survived their head wounds. A brain injury was not necessarily a death sentence, as battlefield neuroscience had taken great strides in recent years. However, a wound to the head more often led to death than not. Wounds to the head and neck comprised 42% of all battlefield fatalities. Of all non-fatal battlefield wounds, gunshots to the head and neck constituted only 10%. Thus, the story of Lieutenant Blake provides us with the general experience. Further, it tells us how Civil War soldiers felt when they saw one of their friends wounded in this manner. As both George Blake’s and William Luey’s accounts make clear, comrades felt utterly helpless when they saw Lieutenant Blake unconscious with a bullet to his brain. Luey wrote that he was “utterly unconscious, making no sign when spoken to or touched.” His cousin wrote, “He never [k]new what hit him, being senseless from the first.”

Once hit, no one held out hope that his head could be repaired. I can only imagine what that sense of helplessness must have felt like.

I could have chosen any number of images of ghastly Civil War head wounds to go here, but I decided to show an image that represented the area of the incident, not what the wound looked like. This sketch depicts the entrenched Union position after the fighting at Cold Harbor had subsided.

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